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In what world does Harford County need a second armored vehicle? | COMMENTARY

The Harford County Sheriff's Office current armored vehicle, built in 2004, is shown. The office recently received approval to purchase a new Lenco BearCat armored vehicle for more than $404,000.
The Harford County Sheriff's Office current armored vehicle, built in 2004, is shown. The office recently received approval to purchase a new Lenco BearCat armored vehicle for more than $404,000. (Courtesy Harford County Sheriff's Office)

Harford County has spent $404,720 to arm its sheriff’s department with a 2021 Lenco Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack Truck, better known as a BearCat. The armored vehicle, to arrive in the next year or so, will come with a battering ram, which can be used to breakdown doors; a 360-degree camera and off-road capabilities. It will be the second vehicle like this for the county, which already owns an older model, armored-tank-like automobile.

The purchase has brought criticism, including from The Harford County Democratic Central Committee, which, in a letter to the editor that ran in The Aegis newspaper, said the money should have been spent on other priorities facing the county, such as education, housing relief and mental health services, and questioned the need for a second vehicle in one of the safer counties in the state. The group pointed out that a 2019 annual report found that Harford County only had eight barricade situations, one of the main reasons such a vehicle would be used. There were no active shooter situations in 2019, and only one each in 2016, 2017 and 2018.

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Sheriff officials call the vehicle a “critical piece of equipment for law enforcement” and say other jurisdictions use the vehicles and Harford County residents shouldn’t be deprived of its use. In fact, they say, these vehicles are being used with increasing frequency in the commercial sector, including by banks and retail companies for protection while transporting valuables. Don’t look at it as “militarylike” policing, they say, but “smart asset and life protection.”

But the fact that so many departments are using the military-style vehicles is where the problem lies. Police departments have become too combat-like and lost their focus on community policing and de-escalating volatile situations. A tank-like vehicle sets the tone that the cops are ready for battle. Minority around the country, in particular, have said they have felt under siege at times by the police, and these types of vehicles don’t help that image.

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The debate over the use of such vehicles has cropped up more because of their use during protests over police brutality. TV images of peaceful protesters surrounded by officers sitting atop armored vehicles and dressed in gear that looks more suitable to a war zone than a neighborhood street don’t sit well with people. And they shouldn’t.

The Obama administration in 2015 restricted use of a program that gave free military surplus gear to police departments. The decision was part of reforms made after the death by police of Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson, Missouri — and the unrest that ensued. The ban included armored vehicles, bayonets, camouflage uniforms, large-caliber weapons and ammunition and grenade launchers.

“We’ve seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like they’re an occupying force, as opposed to a force that’s part of the community that’s protecting them and serving them,” Mr. Obama said at the time.

The Trump administration lifted the restrictions in 2017. President-elect Joe Biden should put them back in place once he is in office. In the meantime, police departments should voluntarily move away from acquiring and using this kind of gear.

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Harford County uses its current armored vehicle for 100 to 125 operations each year, officials say, including high risk search and seizure warrants, armed barricaded subjects, active shooters “in a large venue,” public protests and high profile security details. It could also be used in response to natural disasters and “vehicle born attacks,” which the department says are on the rise (none have actually occurred in Harford County, but law enforcement will be prepared with more than one armored vehicle if it does). Sheriff’s officials say they have had to request the use of armored vehicles from other neighboring jurisdictions on some occasions. It’s enough to make you think Harford County is a modern-day Afghanistan. But we know it’s not.

The vehicle may have played a lifesaving role a year ago when a man in the rural community of Street fired 200 rounds at police and others; it was used to pick up a man who had been shot. But how often do those incidents occur? And isn’t one armored car enough to handle them?

County officials are aware the new armored vehicle is not popular with everyone, but dismiss that viewpoint. “Regardless of public sentiment, the need to protect life during high risk operations will always be paramount to law enforcement operations,” a spokeswoman said in an email. If it was up to us, we would have taken the advice of the county’s Democratic Central Committee and put $400,000-plus to better use. Perhaps, by equipping social workers to help police deal with mentally unstable people or putting more cops on the street or enhancing community programs that deter crime in the first place. There are other ways to protect the community than through the threat of military style enforcement.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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